I was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2016, and from the day I took office, I heard a lot about criminal justice reform: the need to allow for pardons and to expunge low-offense criminal records, the need to move 17-year-olds back to juvenile court, and the need to improve conditions at Lincoln Hills School, a juvenile corrections facility in northern Wisconsin. Since then, little action has been taken.
Of all your tax dollars that Wisconsin collects, 7% goes to locking up offenders. By comparison, 6% goes to the UW System. Do we really want to spend more money on prisons than on universities? My answer is no.
The Legislative Audit Bureau reports that between 2011 and 2019, the Wisconsin prison population grew from 21,941 to 23,675, an increase of 7.9%. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Department of Corrections began to refuse admission to inmates from county jails, halted almost all probation and parole revocations, and moved up release dates when possible. As a result, the Wisconsin prison population declined by almost 1,600 inmates.
Without any change to existing law, projections from the consulting firm Mead & Hunt estimate the state could have 28,000 inmates in 10 years. Historical growth rates support the likelihood of an increasing prison population that will further stress an already overcrowded system.
Wisconsin cannot afford to continue the course its criminal justice system is on. Nearly three-quarters of Wisconsin voters support reforming the state’s expungement law to grant eligibility after the completion of a sentence. Currently, Wisconsin’s expungement law says judges must determine an individual’s eligibility when little to no information is available about rehabilitation.
In his budget proposal, Gov. Tony Evers calls for an additional $15 million for treatment alternatives and diversion. These programs currently provide treatment options as an alternative to incarceration for individuals in 53 counties.
Studies show 56% of program participants successfully completed treatment, avoided incarceration and were less likely to re-offend. It is estimated for every dollar spent on alternatives to incarceration, the state saved $4.17 in reduced prison and court costs.
Drug offenses made up 20% of new admissions to Wisconsin prisons in 2018. This is why we need to expand not only treatment alternatives but also the Earned Release Program as a way to reduce costs of incarceration. Expanding the program will provide a release valve allowing those who successfully complete the six-month program to receive specialized treatment for their addictions and have a better chance at not re-offending.
Currently, Wisconsin is one of only three states that automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Under the law, when a 17-year-old is charged with committing an egregious offense, he or she is automatically put into the adult corrections system. Evers’ budget proposal would restore prior law so that 17-year-olds are put into the juvenile justice system where they would have access to all the rehabilitative programs and services available in the juvenile justice system.
By locking up fewer people and getting people the mental health services they need, we can reduce the cost to taxpayers. As a Legislature, we need to find compromise and address these problems sooner than later.